video games

Time Syncs

[I have been thinking lately about constructed spaces recently. In this post, I want to talk about the idea of Permanence as it relates to open-world games.]

I have been driving for awhile. Going from the busy city blocks to the quiet, rolling country roads, I have been driving as fast as I can. Faster and faster I go. Breaking only when absolutely needed, I race around the other cars. I switch lanes on a whim. Back and forth, I weave through traffic.

Missing yet another car by a hair’s length, I jump lanes again. This time, I fail to notice the car in the oncoming lane.

I crash.

I start again.

I crash.

I start again…

The game I was playing was Burnout Paradise. In it, you drive your car through Paradise City, a sprawling metropolis that reaches from a sea-side coast to the hills miles away. I had been driving through the city and breaking all real world traffic laws. I was recklessly bobbing in and out of lanes, traffic and around other cars. I was driving as fast as possible and sliding around turns. I was having a great time breaking social norms and bringing myself to the brink of virtual death. That is, until I realized I was trapped.

This is Groundhog Day with no exit. No matter of good deeds or correct ordering would break the cycle of rebirth. If I “died”, I would be brought back. The only way out of the world for me was if the world ended, if I exited the game. Nothing I could do would change things.

I can race, take on missions. This is even worse. The world is renewed again for this slice, new cars are added. Yet, when the race is over, they fade away. I always have the option of adding cars to the world but their life is limit, my is not. I am immortal. Vulnerable, yes, but my existence is everlasting. As long as there is the world, I remain.

I have picked this man and his car at random. Not random, no. His car is blue. I like blue. I want his car, so I take.

When I fail to take the car away from him fast enough, he pulls me out. We fight with fists.

I grow bored with this. I pull out my gun and shoot him.

I now have his car. This makes me happy. I drive away in search of another pretty car.

This game is, if you have not guessed it, Grand Theft Auto 4.  I am supposed to be Niko Bellic, an immigrant come to America with grand dreams of wealth and leisure. I have a haunted past. I have made mistakes. I am now looking for a new beginning. Or am I?

If you were to “play” GTA4 by many people’s reckoning, you would try to kill as many people as possible, steal any car that strikes your fantasy and generally be an Id-iot. Yet there is another way to “play” GTA4, that is according to the goals, missions and overall narrative of the game.

One can pick one or even both. It doesn’t matter. If you pick the narrative road, you get tangled in the criminal underground of Liberty City and lose your yourself to the darkness within as you are made to act out for and against those that contract and control you. If you pick the other, you act out whatever whim you have with very little in the way of consequences. Sure, yes, the police may come after you — you might even plan that they will to get even more destruction in before being gunned down. Ultimately though, you cannot escape this path either. You are trapped in that world.

I have heard through many different podcasts, blogs and even personal conversations how many gamers want Permanence in their virtual worlds. Put more simply, “I want my actions to matter” they say. Only, they don’t. Not really.

Consider the first example of my racing around the city. Now consider that I crashed my car. In the Permanent paradigm, that car is ruined. Maybe, yes, some contrivance could be invented to skirt that. The car could be fixed using some in-game currency or materials. However, under the Permanent paradigm, those materials would have to be finite. No materials can enter the game, so all materials are therefore limited.

Now look at the life of Niko Bellic. How many people has he killed through my actions? Your actions? Some of those deaths might have been accidental, a hand slipped on the controller and some pedestrian gets run over, true, but the body count would be high. In fact, you are probably a mass murdered, a serial killer, by your first few hours of “play”, that is, unless you follow all the traffic laws and refuse to commit the game’s namesake. But what fun is that?

What gamers want, if I am allowed to put words into people’s mouths, is for select actions to be Permanent. After I destroy that building, for example, I want it to remain destroyed. When those people die, they remain dead. The examples are numerous. However, there is a limit. After all, this is a virtual world, a fake place. If I wanted to experience the consequences of my actions, the punishment for my misdeeds and the pain of my suffering, I would remain in the Real World. After all, reality is the place of broken things.